Step One: We Can Have Lots of Fun

Wayne Thiebaud, "Cakes," 1963. Oil on canvas. Courtesy the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Wayne Thiebaud, "Cakes," 1963. Oil on canvas. Courtesy the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Greetings from Memphis and Happy Moon Landing Day.

Here we go. I’ve never done this before. Well, not really. I’ve tried it twice. The first time, nobody cared. The second time, I was posting syllabi for my students, so the deck was stacked in my favor. But this is new to me, an unknown known, as they used to say. They probably still say it—I just did. This is already wandering, which I’m going to justify by thinking of a blog as nothing more than a mediated thought process. At least for today, until I get limbered up.

I wrote a list. It’s a nervous tick that I presume creates organization. For an absolutely miniscule moment, I thought I’d be slick and draw up a chart that linked everything I was going to discuss into one highly legible image, but the list came instead. It made me wonder if charts were no longer sufficient for making order of my world…if I had entered into some kind of post-Barrian existence, which made me sad because I truly love Alfred Barr’s chart, if only as part of a Sisyphan struggle to hammer it into a form closer to the way I understand Modernism, which is a fun, if futile, endeavor. Futile fun. Almost as enjoyable as fun futility. I’ve just ticked off the second thing on the list. The first was the moon landing.

The list, in truth, is compensation for my own sense of wonderment at this task of blogging. Self-consciously blogging about blogging seems excessive, but a logical place to start. One of the notes on my list says “admit implicit delusions of grandeur afforded to the blogger.” Please don’t misunderstand me. I doubt this will be the best thing you read today, or ever. But this forum certainly fertilizes the megalomania. Art21 offers a beautifully blanche carte to its bloggers and, like all blogs, the possibility that everyone on the Internet will read what you’ve said. It’s an odd thought, given that most of what most academics write sees only a limited audience. This whole blog format is truly amazing, way more than the Facebook…Edmund Burke above the mists and the like. I thank the Art History gods that I recently reread parts of Barthes’ Mythologies and Eco’s How to Travel with a Salmon. Now, at least, I can point to them when I write something embarrassing. “Well, you know, it’s not like I’m Roland Barthes…” See what I mean about delusions of grandeur? I’m presently finding comfort in the notion that smoke signal-sending humans were the first bloggers.

New post: We’ve got ourselves one of those hairy elephant things for dinner over here. Bring some berries. We’re out.

Ostensibly, I’m to discuss art, which brings me to a point I’ve been trying to make for a while to anyone who is caught in my sights. Everyone should go to the library and get a copy of Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation and read the essay of the same name. At the very end of a very exciting argument, Sontag says that we should all replace a hermeneutics of art with an erotics of art. Less think, more fun? Probably not what she was going for, but I’d like to imagine that there is something in here that we’ve been neglecting. So in the spirit, I’m going to make an absolutist statement, meander around what might count as an argument, and then ask everyone else to help me supply the evidence.

Wayne Thiebaud’s paintings of cakes are the greatest paintings ever. Midway through that sentence I found myself arguing with myself about the nature of greatness, which is, like, OMG, so 21st-century art historian speak. Or, as some might call it, a dog chasing its tail. Like my battle with Barr’s diagram. Fun, futile, for the whole family. So consider greatness up for debate, but I’m more concerned with Thiebaud. And cake. And paint.

My thought is this: Wayne Thiebaud’s paintings of cakes are the greatest paintings ever because Thiebaud somehow knows that the pleasure derived from looking at thickly-impastoed paint on canvas is exactly the same pleasure one derives from cake frosting. It’s multi-sensorial and orgiastic. And really obvious and simple. To think we’ve been talking about Venus and Olympia and, gasp!, Guido Cagnacci. Thiebaud’s paintings are the most direct and unencumbered testimony to the pleasures, the erotics, of art. Granted, I am predisposed because of my utter addiction to sugar in all of its forms, but I just know that somewhere, there is a neurologist identifying the specific pleasure receptor that services both food and painting. The immediately visceral, opticorgasmic jolt I get from these Thiebaud paintings is exactly the same as that which I get from a nice hunk of chocolate, or good BBQ, or grape soda. It’s the smell of oil paint in the air, of sautéeing onions. The exact opposite of dog breath. We all have our own triggers, so I know that you know what I mean. Thiebaud, lucky sod, happens to be the apotheosis of something Titian knew, but did with figures. Something Sánchez Cotán did with quince and cabbage…Rachel RuyschChardinMonet’s Rouen Cathedral façades. Yum.

If any of you knows that neurologist, would you forward my email?

I’m beginning to feel the current, so I’m going to swim back to shore before things get out of hand, but there is one last thing on my list. I thought it would be fun, if only in an effort to cause debate, to add a Top Five list to the end of these. As you’ve probably noticed, I get a kick out of these assertions of taste. I think we all do. It’s just that we’ve talked ourselves out of it in an effort to crystallize our individual and collective academic integrities. But that’s what blogs are for, right? Being somewhat factual, somewhat helpful, and somewhat pedantic. At least, that’s what I’ve learned from Dan Savage.

Top Four Things I Think All Art People Should Give a Try:

  1. Watching Sports. It’s eye exercise. And the analysis of complex strategic schemes, as witnessed visually, is really good practice.
  2. Listening to the Grateful Dead. In my experience, this is a divisive one, but for the same rationale, only auditory, I stand by it. Plus, their repertory of songs will touch on everyone’s taste. It tends to take a few hundred hours of listening before it all clicks, though, so be patient.
  3. Playing an MMORPG (Massively Multi-Player Online Role-Playing Game). It’s fun to create another version of oneself and then drop it/him/her/you/me into the cyber ether and interact with (or be ignored by) others. It’s wondrous and humbling and really helps as an example if you have to discuss some of the more specific points of millennial postmodernism with students.
  4. Eating a fresh pineapple in Hawaii. See Sontag, Thiebauld.

Thanks everyone, for indulging me. Please comment. Polylogue is preferable to monologue.

  1. Ben Street says:

    Dear Adrian,

    Recently I found my stomach doing a freestyle slap bass impression, like one of the Dead’s shroom-fuelled 80s live tracks, in a room of Mark Grotjahns, which looked like centimetre-thick trails of molten dark chocolate, and after that made a rudimentary top 6 in my head of painters whose works I’d eat under a pretty complicated set of circumstances, so, what timing.

    1. Chaim Soutine (not meat, strangely enough, but very slippery cheese)
    2. Blinky Palermo (peppermint fondant)
    3. Chris Ofili (lamb bhuna)
    4. Fragonard (butterscotch meringue)
    5. Veronese (steak and kidney pie)
    6. Luca Giordano (Chicken McNuggets)

    Have I debased this already?

    You’re welcome,

  2. Wonderwood says:

    I’ve got comments on each one of these.

    1. This is good advice. I mean, the superbowl is a must if you are visual person at all. I can also tell you that art “dealers” watch sports – on big expensive LED backlit Hi-Def TVs

    2. This is truly inflammatory advice. I would love to heed it, but about a month ago I deleted all the Greatful Dead off my hard dive to make space.

    3. Is this not the same thing as blogging?

    4. Done, and Done.

  3. Mark Harris says:

    I’m no Art Historian, but perhaps the reason you are attracted to Alfred Barr’s chart is the same reason you are attracted to Thiebault: from about 1905 down it looks like a chart of the cuts of beef ( You did mention BBQ…

  4. Gracie says:

    Prof. Duran–

    Kvelling at New Kids! I’d eat this Rosemarie Trockel sculpture– –or wear it on my wrist…?

    Capital post. Though I find these erotics are beyond food. There’s work that strikes one like checking into a busy hotel, hearing a new single, reading a magazine. The other day, I was at the Frick and found Boucher’s panels to be appetite supressing, thrilling and fun, but in a buzzy, light, anoretic way. I guess I mean I’m always having fun, if I like a thing.

  5. Becca says:

    Thiebault’s cakes are indeed inviting. But they also sanitized, inaccessible, remote, unattainable. They’re not messy. They don’t touch each other. No one is there to offer you one. Who even made them? There is that bright, unforgiving, even, light.

    The cakes are perfect. You just don’t get to satiate your hunger.

    Maybe that makes them all the more desirable?

    P.S. Congratulations, now that song is in my head….

  6. Adrian Duran says:

    Mr. Street-

    How did I know that you’d be first? I’ll see your Chaim Soutine and raise you a Boucher. You are a wise man for claiming Fragonard, but you lost me at Giordano. All That fa presto makes me think empty calories, which I guess makes sense with your McDiet. Am I allowed to talk about your blog in my blog? That Chapman brothers installation is a favorite, and it makes me wonder if you’ll try to recuperate colonialism as the impetus for good art. Let your pen gymnasticate on that.

    With deepest thanks,

  7. Adrian Duran says:

    Mr. Wood-

    1. Thanks. Hopefully the Eagles will pull it out this year.

    2. Odd how many people share your impression of the Dead. People will lose their minds over these things. Moreso than religion, politricks, texting while driving, almost anything. I’m not trying to argue that they’re the best band ever. We have Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem for that. But I do think there is something quite marvelous in their omnivorous behavior in their earliest period, which corresponds quite nicely with what is going on in East and Left Coast art at the same moment. Check out Joseph’s article on Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable. It’s amazing stuff and I think, perhaps without knowing so, carves out a very nice space for the Dead right at the fore of many of these ideas. Plus, they’re another of those cultural entities that lasts long enough that they can serve as something of a barometer of the larger shifts. I mean, going from the Acid Tests to Cherry Garcia is a pretty interesting trajectory.

    3. Sort of, but with far more swordplay.

    4. Pineapples are a sign of welcome.

    Keep it coming, especially the music commentary. This is great fun.


  8. artdoiron says:

    Becca said, “Thiebault’s cakes are indeed inviting. But they also sanitized, inaccessible, remote, unattainable. They’re not messy. They don’t touch each other. No one is there to offer you one. Who even made them? There is that bright, unforgiving, even, light.

    The cakes are perfect. You just don’t get to satiate your hunger.”

    I agree but the this particular piece has that one cake in the top right corner that is cut into showing the internal layers and yet still perfect, not a crumb dropped. This makes me think, “someone around here has a slice of perfect cake and I don’t” It is subtle but perhaps tapping into a primal sense that someone else is satiated and we are here, no cake and no espresso. Oh 2o’clock, my cake and espresso time. Later

  9. Adrian Duran says:

    God, it’s true. You’re a better Art Historian than I. Can we imagine? Barr, just coming back from a long day of purchasing underappreciated Soviet painting, hungry as a junkyard dog. Rings up a few of the old boys and goes to get a steak. Voila!

    The key question here is who’s what? My guess is that Rodchenko would be a nice, juicy filet. Picasso would be some back ribs, all over top of everything else, getting in the way, a fair amount of meat, but also some useless gristle.

    This is an interesting game. Ben?

  10. Adrian Duran says:

    Hello fellow cakeophiles-

    Becca, I’m writing back to you as well here, because I’m trying to be e-fficient. I think you’re deadly correct about the cakes being too nice, too clean, too remote. But, for the same reasons I like Raphael, I have to like Thiebaud. Something about Neoplatonism just makes me squeak with joy when I see such perfect manifestations of exactly what gives me pleasure. Now I know this is totally self-indulgent and devoid of some of that American mea culpa, but I just wanna Whoppa, self-flagellation, but I can’t quite apologize for fantasizing about perfection. [Advert: Everyone keep their eyes peeled for Art21 themes of Fantasy.]

    I think Mr. Doiron makes a good point about access. It’s the desire, the notion that someone else has what we don’t. It’s similar to what someone I know told me once about internet pornography. The real thrill isn’t in the pornography, but in the load time.

    I do not want a single post about that double-entendre anywhere here. You know who you are.

    Porn issues aside, the actual object of desire is an anticlimax. The anticipation is where it’s exciting. The way in which we can’t get what we want. Children scream, art historians rationalize through deferred and imagined pleasure. Does that make some sense?

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  12. Becca says:

    Yep, I agree – it’s the unfulfilled desire that keeps us in some sort of state of suspended pleasure. It’s like the cakes are playing hard to get with us.

    You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find…you get what you need…

    Perhaps the Rolling Stones are more appropriate than the Dead in this particular case.

  13. Adrian Duran says:

    Absolutely, there are plenty of sensations. And, of course, each sensation is differently valenced for each sentient being. Checking into a busy hotel sounds like the 7th circle to me, whereas reading a magazine seems far more fruitful. Eating that Trockel, however, seems dangerously close to licking those lead-infested toys. Boucher is a personal favorite, for reasons of frivolity and paint handling, probably in that order. I’m beginning to think that frivolity should be a larger part of our collective curriculum. For the same reasons that weight-lifters have off days and good ideas always come in the shower. Clearly I’m not the first person to argue this, but it’s an idea that I like to keep in the hopper.

  14. Gracie says:

    More frivolity in the classroom (and discourse). What a joy!–I’ll hold you to it.

  15. Ben Street says:


    I’m glad you mentioned Raphael, whose work is a good defence of the idea that squidgy paint does not necessarily equal pleasurable. There’s a crystalline crucifix in his unbelievable ‘Ansidei Madonna’ at the National Gallery, held by the man my poor students now call “J the Bizzle”, which looks delicious in the same way that Doozer scaffolding did when munched on by the Fraggles.

    I might nibble on a de Kooning while no-one’s looking, but the 18th is still the greatest century for painterly deliciousness. (I’ll take Boucher, by the way, and sneak in Watteau and Tiepolo, both of ’em).

    I’m with you on the Dead, by the way.


  16. bowman says:

    I agree that the cakes painting is one of the greatest paintings of the 20th century. Sculptures of hamburgers are good too.

    I disagree with the Dead advice (terrible voice) but I see your reasoning behind watching sports. I still don’t watch them but I can see the merit.

    MMORPG? inelegant acronym but yes humbling. Pineapple on Maui? yes please.

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